Working at Bell Labs
By John Vollaro February 2007
The decision to settle in New Jersey after leaving the Navy was
prompted by my acceptance of an offer to work at Bell Telephone
Laboratories in Berkley Heights NJ. I was hired as a laboratory
technician and began work on June 29, 1966.
I was hired to assist a scientist with his research
involving artificial neurons. Leon D. Harmon had invented and patented
an electronic circuit that modeled the characteristics of a biological
neuron. My job was to assemble small networks of the artificial neurons
and record patterns in their behavior. I did this and documented my
work in technical memoranda as was required. During the three years
that I worked for Leon, I worked on a number of other projects ranging
from voice and face recognition to visual illusions and abstract art.
Several anecdotes about my work experience during these years are an
attempt to capture the breadth, depth, and diversity of the wonderful
work environment at Bell Laboratories during these years.
In 1969, I began working for A.G. Fraser who went by
the nick name of Sandy. His research involved networking theory and he
wanted to build a network of computers to demonstrate his theories. The
experimental networks that were developed in industry and
academia in the early 1970's lead the way to the implementation of the
modern Internet. Sandy and I designed and built two experimental
networks during the 15 years that we worked together. The first called
the Spider Network, connected 12 computers together. It lead to the
invention of virtual switched circuits for which Sandy received a
patent. The second network was called Datakit. It demonstrated the
virtual switching technique and eventually connected hundreds of
computers at Bell Labs. Datakit pioneered the use of virtual switching
that is currently used in the backbone structure of the Internet.
In 1984 an epoch event occurred in the
communications industry. The Telephone Company Divestiture had
worldwide impact and altered the course of many careers including my
own. The Divestiture forced the separation of the nations telephone
companies from AT&T who owned them and Bell Labs. Since AT&T
kept Bell Labs as part of the deal, a new company was formed to conduct
research for the divested phone companies. This new company was Bell
Communications Research or Bellcore for short.
By that time I was an Associate Member of Technical
Staff and had advanced as far as I could at Bell Labs. The next level
up was reserved for scientists with a PHD in their field. I held only a
two year degree and it was only by good fortune that I had come as far
as I had. Datakit was moving from research into production and Sandy
had received a big promotion to Director of Research. He was on his way
to fame and no longer required my assistance to get there.
I surveyed the landscape and saw two significant
opportunities. The first was to follow the Datakit project into
production. I had brought Datakit from concept to production and was
regarded as its design Guru. The other option was to move from Bell
Labs to Bellcore and start anew. This offer was spiced up by a
promotion to a full member of technical staff. Bellcore was a new
company and did not restrict this transition as Bell Labs did. I would
have my own office and laboratory and a free hand to start a new
research project. The choice was between a secure position with no
chance of advancement or a promotion with no guarantees and "enough
rope to hang myself". I chose to take my chances at Bellcore.